Multiculturalism and Feminism: Do they Mix?

This article ran in the Sydney Morning Herald essay series celebrating the paper’s 175th anniversary.

Do multiculturalism and feminism mix? What about feminism and religious freedom?

One could be forgiven for having doubts. In a range of pluralist, liberal states – Australia included – pockets of cultural and religious minorities engage in practices that express limited views about the full humanity of women, and undermine equity between the sexes. From the insistence of pockets of Somali immigrants in the US on “circumcising” their infant girls, the refusal of parts of the Anglican and Catholic Churches to ordain women and the appeal to customary law by some Aboriginal men to justify child marriage and marital rape, some religious and cultural sub-communities persevere with practices that express particular views about “proper” roles for women rejected – in theory if not in practice – by the majority. When criticised, the defence that tends to be offered, nearly always by a male authority figure, is that what is being done is an inextricable part of “our culture”.

The dilemma cannot be solved by a simple appeal to rights. This is because the right to pursue one’s own conception of the good life free from discrimination on the grounds of culture and of gender are important moral rights. Which should trump the other when they conflict? Political rights are similarly impotent in the face of this conflict, with many human rights conventions and anti-discrimination protocols enshrining gender equity as well as freedom of culture and religion. The seven core international human rights treaties, for example, include those that guarantee the right of self determination to all without regard to religion, as well as those that affirm the equal rights of men and women.

So what should be done when the values we hold about cultural and religious diversity, and our beliefs about equality between the sexes, collide? A number of Australian politicians have recently made their views clear. Members of minority cultures or religions can either do as we do (or say we do) when it comes to gender equity, or go home. “If a person wants to live under Sharia law there are countries where they might feel at ease”, Treasurer Peter Costello recently informed Australia’s Muslim minority. “But not Australia”. In a speech to the Sydney Institute earlier this year, Victorian MP Andrew Robb argued that the successful integration of first and second generation Muslims into Australia was dependant on these Australians “demonstrat[ing] their comittment” to, among other things, the “Australian value” of equality between the sexes.

Some supporters of multiculturalism – many of whom are feminists – have taken umbrage at such remarks, which have been interpreted as thinly-veiled racism against Australian Muslims. Certainly it was the first time many Australian feminists heard the fair, fat and fifty-ish men who run the nation even mention the word feminism, little less in such impassioned and unequivocal tones.

Yet, beneath this discomfort may have lurked another: one grounded in the sure knowledge that however unjust the discrimination some minority groups suffer (the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission handled 167 complaints of race discrimination in 2004~~05), such groups may also perpetrate injustice~~ systematically and unapologetically – against “their” girls and women. Whether it’s Muslim parents forcing their daughters overseas for an arranged marriage with an (often far older) co-religionist, Orthodox Jewish males thanking God daily for not making them women, or leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention instructing female congregants to “submit themselves graciously to the servant leadership of their husbands” and accept their ordained role of “managing the household and nurturing the next generation,” culture and religion are regularly used as defences for practices that demean, deprive, limit and otherwise oppress women.

Ironically, at the same time as girls and women are burdened by the patriarchal attitudes of traditional religious and cultural communities, they are also seen as responsible for their preservation and perpetuation. According to one American study, the parents of young migrant women saw their daughters as more responsible than their sons for the positive representation and perpetuation of their culture and consequently legitimately subject to parental control when it came to what they wore, their participation in extracurricular and social activities, their future choices about education and employment and even their decisions about when and who to marry. While some girls openly or covertly flouted such restrictions, others submitted, despite what they admitted were high psychic, social and/or material costs. Philosopher Susan Okin tells a story of an Indian student facing a forced marriage that would preclude her graduation from high school. While the 17-year old admitted that her parents’ decision had “messed up” her dreams and plans, leaving her “tormented”, she bristled at her teacher’s suggestion that she might resist. “In our religion, we have to think of our parents first…I will do it the Muslim way”.

For Okin, arguably the 20th century’s most eminent female philosopher, one solution to the clash between feminism and multiculturalism is to ensure female members of religious sub-groups have what she calls “realistic rights of exit”. Liberal pluralist societies like Australia should only tolerate the rights of minority groups to discriminate against women when those women are truly free to respond to such discrimination – and the more limited life aspirations and achievements they entail – to leave the group, and build an alterative life elsewhere. Small-l liberal states that do not guarantee this freedom to all their citizens are guilty of failing to protect women’s moral right to choice and control over their lives.

But the right to escape a community that is oppressive is not enough. Gender-discriminatory cultures and religions have a profound impact on women’s beliefs about their legitimate entitlements in this life. If girls grow up hearing, as they do if they attend some private fundamentalist Christian schools, that their failure to accept a subordinate and obedient role in the home leaves the “doors open to Satan”, their opportunities to exit are significantly undermined. This is because, to rephrase the Rocky Horror Show’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. As a consequence, asserts Okin, where multicultural practices eviscerate the self-esteem necessary for girls and women to develop their own values and plans, the State is well within its bounds to outlaw them. This is particularly the case because the alternative – that oppressed women can either “lump it or leave” – not only deprives women of the opportunity to participate in and enjoy the positive aspects of their cultures, it more or less ensures the entrenchment in such cultures of gender-oppressive attitudes and behaviour. After all, if the women who object to them have no other option but to leave, it’s hard to see from where the force for change will come.

An emphasis not just on the obligation of liberal states to equip girls and women from minority cultures to exit, but to ensure the conditions exist for them to stay, is likely to draw fierce resistance from some minority cultural and religious groups. The leaders of such groups may brand as culturally imperialist claims that particular practices (like distinctive and highly restrictive female dress and education emphasising traditional gender roles and sexual morality) are oppressive to women, and insist that “their” women freely choose to engage in them. Where practices less open to interpretation are at issue – like female genital mutilation, or forced child marriages – they may argue that cultural expression and survival must take priority over gender equality.

Philosopher Ayelet Shachar has observed that “a disproportionate share of the costs of multiculturalism” is born by the most vulnerable groups in the community: children, women and homosexuals. Shachar’s point, obvious but often overlooked, is that minority cultural and religious groups are not homogeneous, but comprise less and more powerful members. This is something to keep in mind when the most powerful members insist on majority toleration of a practice that results in the least powerful copping it sweet.

A focus on exit rights, and the conditions necessary to stay, is not really as radical as it may sound. When we insist that that the perpetrators of domestic violence, not the victims, leave the family home, or applaud court decisions that prohibit religious schools from firing married women because of their view that they belong at home, we endorse an Okin-esque view that a truly just society doesn’t just support its citizens to escape injustice by leaving, but helps them to fight it, so they can stay.

It’s these battlers, after all, who make the world a more just place for us all.

Publication history

Caught between Right and Right  Sydney Morning Herald